Leitke’s closing end of an eraPublished 11:00pm Wednesday, May 12, 2010
By JOHN EBY
Dowagiac Daily News
For 62 years, Reinhold Leitke never went outdoors to go to work.
That’s a definite advantage to living your entire life in the same house, then attaching to it the business from which you draw your livelihood.
May 5 would have been Leitke’s Grocery’s 63rd anniversary. It survived a 1991 garage fire.
Rein. and Tina, who is also 88, remember a Dowagiac with 28 grocery stores competing for customers along with two city supermarkets, A&P and Kroger’s.
A&P was where Ridge Co. is before locating on S. Front.
They worked in several identified on Rein’s handwritten list.
He started in 1937 for $5 for a six-day week with Taberski’s on E. Division Street, in the vicinity of the tire store.
The Daily News’ Berenice Vanderburg was a customer.
Then Fred Stevens for $10, raised to $12 (where the former glass store is on Main Street), Gwilt-Hiemstra and Ben Bement, who had 28 employees to keep up with food deliveries.
“One Christmas Eve Bill Hartsell didn’t get back from delivering until 12:30. Dick Sifford left just before I went to work at Bement’s,” Leitke said. “I worked in the meat department. I’d go in the back cooler where the meat saw was and be there all day. One Easter he sold a ton and a half of picnic hams for 14 or 15 cents a pound. He’d have a semi load of meat come with Swift and drive all over town advertising it was going to Bement’s.
“At 6 o’clock they’d pull up and we’d have to unload the thing. The Swift salesman was good and taught me a lot of things. Ben Bement went to the Century Theater, where they had some kind of doings, and announced that in the next 30 minutes, sirloin steak was going to be 19 cents a pound. They lined up all the way from the store to the Shell station. I was cutting every piece they had. He was quite a promoter.”
Hiemstra’s was originally on Front Street “and bought Bement out when I was in the service,” Rein said.
Mrs. Leitke worked at Hiemstra’s, which belonged to her father, Neal, and was located on W. Railroad Street where The Manor and Trackside are today.
Leitke’s went from Dowagiac’s oldest independent grocery to its only and then last when it quietly closed Jan. 4.
It wasn’t just the loss of McKinley Elementary School which bled it of business, but the nature of the entire neighborhood changed incrementally through the years.
“To tell the truth,” Tina said, “we don’t know everybody who lives down here anymore, like we used to. It’s changed so much,” such as students riding buses to schools outside of their neighborhoods.
“I never rode a school bus in my life,” said Rein., who walked a block to McKinley.
Leitke’s, behind their house at 309 Jefferson St., operated with the motto, “Small enough to know you, big enough to serve you,” which they and their six children did longer than any single family food store.
When they marked their 40th anniversary in 1987, Southwestern Michigan College’s graduation speaker was entrepreneur Ed Lowe, Herb Teichman was named a tourism ambassador by Michigan First Lady Paula Blanchard, Joan Jett rocked the Cass County Fair and “Hunkyville,” the ethnic neighborhoods where the immigrants who built Dowagiac settled to give rise to 28 groceries, crammed into the VFW hall for a reunion.
As Rein. told the Daily News when the store turned 30, “We started on a shoestring and grew with Dowagiac.”
Early on he learned the lesson of not overextending himself with credit and is proud of a life in which only two things were bought “on time.”
“I believe in paying for whatever I get and getting what I pay for,” he said, standing near the original store’s butcher block, which he was still using to carve meats.
Their small, family-oriented operation, where he said he could “make 10 cents an hour or $10 an hour,” allowed them to survive when other neighborhood shops – and larger supermarkets – vanished.
The couple used his mustering-out pay from the Air Force to stock two rooms in their house with groceries and fresh meat to open for business on May 5, 1947.
Rein. was born in the home in June 1921 and has lived there his entire life except for his time in the service during World War II when “Uncle Sam borrowed me for 39 months.”
Mrs. Leitke was born in Kalamazoo, but grew up the next corner down in the same neighborhood as her future husband.
At one time, Mr. Leitke told me in 1987, he nearly took a job as a mechanic and “just missed becoming a grease monkey to become a meat-cutter.”
He keeps at the ready a nice glossy of one aircraft he worked on – the Enola Gay, the B-29 Superfortress bomber that dropped the first atomic bomb.
Besides stints with other stores in his early years, he worked in some factories, including Kawneer in Niles, the Round Oak foundry and Rudy’s.
Their six children took turns working in the store. Tom lived in California for more than 20 years, but has moved back closer in Granger, Ind.
Henry delivered mail as a Dowagiac postman for 25 years before passing away in 1995 due to complications from diabetes.
Their daughters are Alice Robbins, Susan Frazier, Justus Gage second grade teacher Judy Truitt and Kathy, who was a junior college All-American softball player. Kathy coaches women’s softball for Western Michigan University.
Kathy, who lives in Kalamazoo, bought and cleared the parklike property across Paris from the homestead and maintains it as sort of a green buffer before the viaduct. Alice and Sue still live near the store. Judy lives on M-51.
The Leitkes have 15 grandchildren (Bryan Frazier is deceased) and eight great-grandchildren.
“They all come here for Christmas Eve,” Tina said. “We have over 40 because sometimes they bring friends,” so they may need Kathy’s parcel to build a hall.
“I can’t complain about our kids not wanting to help,” their mother said.
Open every day of the week but Sundays, the family crammed travel and recreation time into weekends by taking their camper and showing the children as much as they could.
Except for those weekend jaunts, they seldom ventured far from the store, except for a 15-day trip to Japan in 1971 for his service reunion, including three days in Tokyo.
The grocery operated in their home the first five years, 1947-1952, with an incredible variety of food products arrayed in the confined space.
The new store attached to the back of their residence opened July 16, 1952.
In 1975 they expanded the structure, doubling floor space to 48 feet by 40 feet and adding a line of party items, including beer and wine.
Though a neighborhood mom and pop store, Leitke’s offered a complete line of groceries, fresh meat, bakery items, health and beauty aids, greeting cards, miscellaneous kitchen utensils, notions and small toys.
No snow days for Leitke’s, which might be the only thing open after an immobilizing accumulation. “I did more business those days when people had to walk,” he said. “We put on a pot of coffee for the people. Once, it was three days before somebody came over the viaduct.”
A special service which grew out of January blizzards was free delivery service to senior citizens on Wednesdays.
Leitke’s also processed meat for home freezers, including deer, and custom cut and wrapped sides of beef.
Rein.’s parents, married in 1905, arrived in Dowagiac in 1913 and bought the house in 1920 after living on Clinton Street and on Cass Avenue.
They were German, but fled Russia for England, then settled in Brazil in South America for five years.
“I’ve still got relatives in Argentina,” Leitke said.
“They came to Dowagiac because there were all these Germans – Darrs, Behnkes, Festers. When I went to McKinley, any guy who spoke English was a foreigner to me. My dad lost his job in 1929 when they went on strike at the Round Oak. Looking back, my dad made $873 one year, working 10 hours a day, six days a week.”
Rein., who quit school at 14, obtained a driver’s license in 1933 when he was 12, paying $1 for a lifetime permit issued by Police Chief Oscar Burch, whose department was in the Beckwith Building, where City Council met in the basement.
In 1969, when adult education was in its infancy, Rein. then 48, returned to school and completed his diploma, presented to him by Eleanor Skibbe.
If you attended Patrick Hamilton in its first go-around as a grade school, you remember C.C. Paul’s store on the triangle where Spruce and Main streets met.
Another former mayor, Robert Weller, operated a store on Oak Street.
There was Walker’s, just across the creek from Lions Park. Rein. mentions the “Three R” store, which sat kitty corner from North Pointe Center at N. Front and E. Prairie Ronde on land that is vacant today.
When he entered the Air Force he was almost made a cook based on his meat-cutting experience, but there were already three cooks in his 42-man company. So he was assigned as a mechanic.
“May 8, 1945, Germany surrendered,” Rein. recalled. “There were nine of us guys from Dowagiac who got together in Guam,” including Bradley Evans.
“In those days you had to work if you wanted to eat,” Mrs. Leitke said. “Things are bad for our country, but people don’t worry about it because they get welfare. It’s always been that way, but it’s getting worse.”
They’re not sure what will become of the store building.
“Susie” suggested turning it into a dance hall.
In the meantime, Tina admitted, “I feel lost. I’m so used to being in there with him. The days go by, but I don’t know what I’m going to do next.”